MANHATTAN — Kansas State's short-term football future will be revealed on Sunday, when the Wildcats learn their bowl destination.
Long term, a successful first year under new coach Chris Klieman also has sparked renewed optimism for the program.
"Our backs were against the wall before the season started," Klieman said following the Wildcats' 27-17 victory over Iowa State on Nov. 30, which wrapped up an 8-4 regular season in which they tied for third in the Big 12 at 5-4. "Not very many people thought an awful lot of this football team, except for the guys in the room.
"There's been some tough times. We've been on a bit of a roller coaster, but I always told you guys that we continue to get better. The guys would continue to buy in and learn more, take more ownership and get invested in the program, and they've done that. So let's (give) credit where credit is due, and that's with the players and the assistant coaches."
Because a number of variables played into the bowl selection, the Wildcats were less concerned about where they're headed than excited about the fact that they're back in the postseason picture after missing out last year for the first time since 2009.
"We've had a great season and exceeded people's expectations," junior quarterback Skylar Thompson said, referencing the Wildcats' ninth-place selection in Big 12 preseason polls. "We were way better than people gave us credit for and we just took it one week at a time.
"We had some great leadership with our seniors. It's going to be huge for us to go capitalize on (and get) a victory in our bowl game to top it off."
Klieman also praised the Wildcats' 27-member senior class.
"It's been an unbelievable ride and an unbelievable ride for all of us as a staff," said Klieman, who won four FCS national titles at North Dakota State before arriving at K-State to replace legendary coach Bill Snyder last December. "Once again my hat goes off to our seniors, because they're the ones that had to embrace us.
"They're the ones that had the disruption four years, five years into their time that they get a new staff and a new coach. We gave them everything we had. We poured our heart and soul into those kids and they responded."
Running back Jordon Brown, a graduate transfer who played a pivotal role in the Iowa State game after battling injuries most of the season, also was new to the program and appreciated the progress under a new staff.
"I'm just proud of how everyone kept fighting," he said. "Everyone came out with the mentality that we needed to empty the tank and I feel like everybody did that (against Iowa State).
"I felt like the team really came together under this new staff. Everyone felt like they wanted to play for this staff and they wanted to go out and play for the coaches and that's what drove us on the field."
Klieman quickly won over his players, even if it took a little longer with a skeptical fan base.
"When Coach Klieman and the new staff got here in January, they all did a great job motivating us to buy into the program and trust the process," said junior kicker Blake Lynch. "That's what we tried to focus on every day and just take it one day at a time."
Not to be overlooked is the fact that bowl eligibility also gives the Wildcats some added practice time, vitally important for a program still in its infancy under Klieman.
Klieman said the team would work with strength and conditioning coach Chris Dawson leading up to the bowl selection while the staff hit the recruiting trail. Much of the time following the bowl selection will be spent developing the young talent for the future.
"For us, you have 27 seniors that need some rest," he said. "They don't need to practice a ton.
"We have all these freshmen and sophomores that we need to give a great look to and focus on those guys and get these extra practices and time to develop those guys."
Thompson also said he'll use the extra time to recharge his batteries.
"I'm really excited for the opportunity," he said. "I'm going to take some time to step away and kind of refresh a bit. These last seven straight weeks have been a grind.
"I'm just really proud of this team, the way we were mentally tough and we were beat up and people kept on fighting through it, sticking together. The coaches kept on pouring their all into us, and it paid off for us the way we finished the season."